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Book review of Black Flame by Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt
international | anarchist movement | review Friday March 04, 2011 04:47 by Wayne Price - personal opinion drwdprice at aol dot com
Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism; Counterpower, Vol. 1
A review of Schmidt and van der Walt's Black Flame, a study of the broad anarchist tradition.
This is a remarkable book, a wonderful book. I wish I had had it years ago when I was developing my politics. Everyone interested in anarchism should read this book. Although not without some quirky judgments, it is clearly committed to anarchism and is carefully and deeply based on scholarly research. It is not a history of anarchism (apparently that will be volume 2), but a thematic discussion of various aspects (although frequently going into the historical background of the topic under discussion).
Instead of the usual Eurocentric presentation, Schmidt and van der Walt place the movement in a world context. Of course the authors know that the anarchist movement began in Europe. Capitalism and the industrial revolution began in Europe and so did the ideological reactions to it: modern democracy, liberalism, socialism (of all varieties), nationalism, internationalism, etc. These ideologies spread around the globe, interacting with and merging with local cultures and struggles. When discussing an aspect of anarchism, the authors may cite examples from France or the USA, but are as likely to give examples from Japan, China, Argentina, or South Africa.
Rather than treating anarchism as a set of great ideas developed by a series of wise sages, the authors regard it as essentially a movement. Rooted in the mass struggles of workers, as well as peasants, along with all the oppressed, the great ideas of anarchism came out of this movement. Even at times when the popular movement dies down and only a small number of revolutionaries hold to the ideal, anarchist ideas are still directed toward the next upswing of mass struggle. While there were libertarian precursors, the anarchist movement, as a movement, began in the 1860s, under the initiative of Michael Bakunin and his companions in the First International, in conflict with Karl Marx. The ideas were developed further by Peter Kropotkin and others, and incorporated into the syndicalist movement (radical, libertarian-democratic, unionism). They call this “the broad anarchist tradition.”
To them, this is anarchism. “‘Class struggle’ anarchism, sometimes called revolutionary or communist anarchism, is not a type of anarchism; in our view it is the only anarchism” (p. 19). Even Proudhon does not make the cut. The first to call himself an anarchist, he advocated a reformist program, a market economy, and was against unions and strikes, besides being misogynist. However, they freely admit that Proudhon influenced Bakunin and other anarchists. Nor are they factually wrong, in that, as a movement, anarchism did begin with Bakunin (against the opposition of most Proudhonians). Similarly, they deny that the individualists such as Benjamin Tucker were anarchists, and the same for anyone else who was not pro-working class, revolutionary, and libertarian socialist or communist.
As a matter of historical judgment, I find this a bit quirky, but not terribly wrong. Whether we should call Proudhon a libertarian who influenced Bakunin’s anarchism or say he was an early anarchist is not a big deal. The problem is its current application. A very large proportion of people who sincerely call themselves anarchists today are not for working class revolution. These radicals desire an end to the state, capitalism, and all oppressions—that is, they share the goals of the broad anarchist tradition (unlike, say, so-called pro-capitalist “libertarians”). They seek to achieve this by gradual, nonviolent, steps, living in nonconformist styles, and building alternate institutions. These will, they think, eventually replace the capitalist economy and state.
I have no problem saying that they are outside the broad anarchist tradition of revolutionary, working class, anarchist-communism. They are. But, it seems to me to be pointless to declare that they are not anarchists. This would involve us in a terminological dispute which makes us look sectarian. It is more useful, I think, to argue that such reformists are programmatically wrong and will not achieve the goals they share with revolutionary anarchism
Disputes Among Anarchists and Syndicalists
The authors focus on disputes within the broad anarchist tradition. Covering such disputes, they try to give a fair account of each side in each disagreement but conclude with their own opinion. They are almost always correct in their judgments—which is to say, I agree with them. They begin with the dispute between “insurrectionist anarchism” and “mass anarchism” (I prefer “mass struggle anarchism”). The question is whether individuals or small groups should refuse to “wait” for mass struggles and should engage in “propaganda by the deed” to hopefully inspire the people to rise up. Or whether anarchists should participate in the lives and struggles of workers and others, to build mass movements and organizations, which may eventually erupt in mass uprisings (popular insurrections) This is the approach they recommend. They note that insurrectionism has a long history in anarchism, but overall has been a minority tendency.
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